I was recently honored by JICNY, The Jewish International Connection of NY. The organization creates a social, religious and networking community for Jews in their 20s and 30s living in NY who grew up outside of the United States. Over the last several years my synagogue, Shearith Israel, has partnered with them in those efforts. As a reflection of that, they gave me their ‘Dedication to Jewish Life Award’ at their annual gala. The theme of the event was ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which worked out so well for me as I was able to simply borrow a top hat and coat and tails out of the Shearith Israel closet! In my acceptance remarks I shared a Devar Torah that struck me as also relevant to the Spanish and Portuguese experience.
In the opening verse of Lekh Lekha G-d commands Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land that G-d will show him (the Land of Israel). It is a surprising commandment for just a few verses earlier, at the end of Noah, the Torah states that Abraham was already on his way there!?
Rashi (12:2) relates that while Abraham was going to Israel originally, the family had actually stopped prematurely, and so G-d needed to instruct him to keep going. Another possibility (see Ramban) is that while Abraham was headed to Israel anyway, he was only doing so for security purposes, for familial responsibility or for financial opportunity. G-d therefore instructed him to continue going, and in doing so added a spiritual element to his journey. Indeed, it is often when we are going through spatial changes, that we are also most open to spiritual changes.
I encouraged the JICNY community to take advantage of this time of change in their lives to also grow through a spiritual journey, just as our forefather Abraham did so long ago. Indeed, this was just the experience that so many Spanish and Portuguese Jews underwent upon their exodus from the Iberian peninsula. Many had been living as Catholics for over a hundred years and finally only left under fear of Inquisitorial accusations. When arriving in places like Amsterdam and London some remained on the fringes of the community. Others, however, took advantage of their change of home to also reconsider their spiritual identity and fully embrace their Jewish heritage.
Throughout life we all experience changes, whether in locality, professionally, personally or otherwise. Let us take advantage of those times of change to also take stock of our inner lives and grow spiritually as well.